BY JENNA FRYER
AP AUTO RACING WRITER
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Joey Logano, the driver who has spent seven years trying to live up to impossible expectations, raced to his first career Daytona 500 victory Sunday as he continued to reward Roger Penske for catapulting him into one of NASCAR’s top stars.
Nicknamed “Sliced Bread” when he broke into the Sprint Cup Series at 18 because so many predicted him to be the next big thing, Logano found himself searching for a new job after four underwhelming seasons.
He was snatched up by Penske for the 2013 season after being dropped by Joe Gibbs Racing, a move that jumpstarted his career. His victory in “The Great American Race” on Sunday gave “The Captain” his second Daytona 500 title. Penske, one of the most respected team owners in motorsports, also has a record 15 Indianapolis 500 wins.
“Daytona 500, oh my God! Are you kidding me?” Logano yelled in victory lane. “I was so nervous the whole race.”
The 24-year-old from Connecticut was quiet for most of the race, which was dominated by four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Making the final Daytona 500 start of his career, Gordon won the pole and led the field to green in the first race of his last Sprint Cup season. Gordon kept his Chevrolet out front for 77 of the first 100 laps, and led a race-high 87 laps.
But when the slicing and dicing for the win began, Gordon was mired in traffic and Logano suddenly found himself in contention. He had reason to fret, though, after Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski went to the garage with an engine failure.
Then Ryan Blaney, another Ford driver, also lost an engine, and Logano was in danger of the same fate.
But after Blaney’s engine failure set up a restart with 19 laps remaining, Logano buckled down for white-knuckle, three-wide racing throughout the field. He surged to the front and seemed to have the race under control, but a caution with three laps remaining forced him to fight for the win one last time.
NASCAR needed nearly seven minutes of stoppage to clean the track, and it set up a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Logano sat in his car thinking about a strategy, which wasn’t the most comforting feeling.
“You got a red flag, and they give you the opportunity to think of everything,” he said.
And even though Penske and a committee of team executives watch from the roof and offer advice, there was nothing in his ear with the win on the line.
“It’s funny because the whole team gets pretty quiet when you’re about to win the Daytona 500,” Logano said.
He got a terrific jump on the field, and as Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. mounted their push for the lead, a wreck further back in the field brought out the yellow flag.
It froze the field and Logano won under caution.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick finished second and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the defending race winner.
Denny Hamlin finished fourth in a Toyota and was followed by six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle.
Gordon was involved in the final accident and finished 33rd.
Tony Stewart’s drought at Daytona extended to 0-for-17 when he was involved in a multi-car accident on an early restart.
Stewart seemed to drift up the track into rookie Ryan Blaney, and the contact sent Stewart into the outside wall. Stewart took his car to the garage, returned to the race down 64 laps, and eventually called it a day and accepted his 42nd-place finish.